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Screw Capos: Seized Mafia Land Makes Honest Wines

Plus, an ambassador to the E.U. embezzles some of the good stuff on the side, and Ornellaia goes Far East with a new artist bottling

Posted: March 29, 2012

• Unfiltered is no snitch, but we hear that with so many of the Italian mafia behind bars, the farmlands and vineyards they owned are being confiscated and converted into above-the-board businesses. Earlier this week, the bank Unicredit announced plans to help fund 370 acres of new vine plantings near Palermo, in Sicily, on land once owned by don Michele "The Pope" Greco. Greco, who was charged with 78 counts of murder, including that of crime-fighter Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, died in prison in 2008. The move is part of a larger $1.6 billion European Union initiative called Programma Operativo Nazionale Sicurezza to convert former mob land in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campagna into agricultural projects that will give a much-needed boost to Italy's (legal) economy. So far, about 310 acres of vines and 1,980 acres of fruit trees have been put to work in the first phases of the plan. "What was an emblem of the economic force of the mafia is now becoming a symbol of Sicily's rebirth," Sicilian Economic Commissioner Gaetano Armao said at the Vinitaly trade fair.

For now, the new winemakers pair Greco, rather than sleep, with the fishes, but the project unsurprisingly has felt heat from the Families. Some Mafiosi took out loans on their properties that were to be confiscated and then defaulted, preventing new development. The government process of seizing these lands can take years, by which point the existing crops have died. Early on, there were even acts of arson at one farm. The brand that now plies the vines developed so far, Centopassi, produced half a million bottles of wine last year, reaping $1.2 million in revenue. Each bottling is dedicated to a high-profile Italian whacked by the mob in the past. But even more than most winemakers, "made" vintners can get touchy around the ego area, so we imagine that when these dispossessed former winesguys get out of the joint, the conversations could turn ugly, like the famous scene Unfiltered hazily recollects from the movie Goodfellas.

"I said, no more wines. Maybe you didn't hear about it, I've been away a long time. I don't make wines anymore."
"Relax, will ya? Ya flip right out, what's got into you? I'm breaking your stemware a little bit, that's all. I'm only kidding with ya… Now go home and get your [bleepin'] winebox."

• For a quarter-century now, Turkey has been petitioning to join the E.U., and its continued exclusion has been a source of national exasperation. But the whole rigmarole may have been a pretty sweet gig for one guy: Turkey's recently retired permanent representative to the Council of Europe is under investigation for allegedly hightailing out of Dodge (his embassy in Strasbourg) with $266,000 of fancy wine, which police later turned up in two warehouses he owns. Daryal Batıbay, according to Turkish media, made off with as many as 2,000 bottles, and also managed to avoid paying Turkish customs on them by squirreling them away in a moving truck full of his stuff. Oh, and he's also accused of helping himself to a BMW on the Turkish dime. Batıbay is under investigation by multiple Turkish authorities. If the allegations are true, Batıbay makes the on-the-job heist jobs of the wine grifters at SD26 and in Luxembourg look small-time. Given Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's knack for putting those who cross him behind bars, Unfiltered imagines Batıbay is throwing as many parties as possible as quickly as he can with whatever wine he may have left.

• China's growing thirst for fine wine is well-documented, and the phenomenon has almost single-handedly bolstered the international market for collectible wine through the recent global recession. Among the Bordeaux first-growths—no strangers to turning mighty profits—both Châteaus Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild saw substantial jumps in sales and profits after Sinofying their 2008 labels. Ever the mindful pupils of Bordeaux, California joined the fray of Chinese tribute labels earlier this year with Iron Horse's Year of the Dragon Chinese Cuvée. What Would Confucius Say? First, pandering will get you everything. And second, the fool who fails to separate a flush market and its yuan pairs his super Tuscan with Top Ramen. Tuscany's esteemed Tenuta dell'Ornellaia has taken that sage advice and unveiled this year's Ornellaia Vendemmia d'Artista project for the 2009 vintage, starring Chinese artist Zhang Huan. In the Confucian spirit, 21 of the 111 total bottles made (10 double magnums, six imperials and one salmanazar)—which feature images of the fifth century B.C. Chinese philosopher himself—will be auctioned at Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental by Sotheby's, with the net proceeds donated to the H2 Foundation for Arts and Education. This is the fourth year Ornellaia has released this artist series, and so far, they have raised over $800,000 for charity.

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